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Hassle-free air travel today is pie in the sky

There's no other way to say it: Flying is the pits these days. Yes, we're happy to arrive at our destinations in one rumpled piece, but the getting there just isn't any fun.

Escalating ticket prices and charges for food, jam-packed planes and horror stories of missed connections and delayed flights are enough to keep anyone home. But I, like lots of other travelers, don't want to stay home. So we hold our nose and get on board.

The latest affront in the unfriendly skies is the charging for checked baggage to help pay fuel costs. Policies differ, but the second bag can cost as much as $25. I suspect that very soon we will be flying with our underwear in plastic bags on our laps.

Maybe we can wear all our clothes, layer upon layer, and forgo the luggage altogether. Forget that, the extra girth will force the purchase of a second seat.

Carry-on is only the answer for some people. The elderly, the disabled, people traveling with young children, and athletes of all ages often need to check bags . . . and often more than one. Medicine poses another problem. Not all prescriptions come in pill form and don't necessarily conform to carry-on regulations for liquids and gels.

And get this: A St. Petersburg Times photographer traveling on assignment this month was told he could only take one carry-on on a flight to Miami. He was forced to leave behind the laptop computer that enables him to transmit photos, choosing, of course, his camera equipment. The bag that carries the camera and lenses is much smaller than most carry-on suitcases. I had to wonder if there wasn't a discrimination lawsuit in the offing: How is the camera and a slim computer different than the purse and carry-on many women bring on board?

It is more than the baggage situation that saddens me about the modern state of air travel, which has deteriorated much since my first flight more than 40 years ago. On that cross-country trip, I was given metal wings, and there were perfume samples in the bathrooms. I think I even got a new "travel" outfit. These days, I see people actually traveling in their pajamas.

Some observations from a recent trip from Tampa to Seattle, via Denver, and returning from Sacramento, Calif., again through Denver:

• The condition of the interior of the United Airlines planes made me wonder about the condition of the engines. I had an aisle seat and the armrest dangled precariously. "Sorry," said the beleaguered flight attendant. Fabric covering the bulkhead wall was ripped and hanging. Overhead bins rattled so violently I was sure the contents would shift on my head during flight.

On another leg, the seat in front of me could not lock in its upright position. On take-off, it slammed into my knees while the passenger tried valiantly to hold it steady. He apologized several times. Not to worry, I told him. Lie back and enjoy the flight (even though I won't).

• In Denver, our flight home was delayed several hours because the plane's toilets were malfunctioning. Another plane was summoned. I respect the decision to wait for a fully functioning plane but the electronic ticker board in the terminal gave conflicting information about flight numbers and gates. The one gate agent we found locked up her station and scurried away as we approached. I guess the group looked frantic enough to a nearby pilot; he gamely offered help. The reason that the flight numbers kept changing, he said, was because US Airways, Air Canada and United were sharing the flight. Oh. The gate number? Keep watching.

(My one piece of advice is to take early flights as much as possible. As the day wears on, chances for delays increase.)

We stumbled into bed about 4:30 a.m., happy to be prone after hours of human origami stunts. We'll travel again because we love seeing new places, but I fear that for many people it will be too much of a hassle.

That's a shame, because what the world needs now is more people who understand each other. And that comes, in part, through travel.

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at jkeeler@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8586.

Hassle-free air travel today is pie in the sky 07/17/08 [Last modified: Friday, July 18, 2008 10:35am]
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